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Media Expert Elaborates on Election 2008 Arab and Muslim Stereotypes

Posted: 10/29/08 09:12 AM ET

Jack Shaheen, a sort of one-man anti-defamation league, is a former CBS News consultant on Middle East Affairs. He is one of the world's foremost authority on media images of Arabs and Muslims and has written works such as "Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture," "Nuclear War Films," the award-winning "TV Arab," and his latest is "Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11." Shaheen has made significant contributions to cross-cultural awareness and is a respected expert in the field of international relations. Off The Bus caught up with Shaheen to discuss Arab and Muslim portrayals in the 2008 election and how an Obama presidency can make a positive impact.

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The 2008 presidential election is forcing many Americans to deal with issues pertaining to Arab and Muslim culture. How have traditional media outlets handled the issue and what can we learn?

Jack Shaheen: From the beginning most media systems, print and broadcast, were content with the defamation of all things Arab. I say that because if you go back to when Hillary Clinton was being interviewed on "60 Minutes" and was asked if Obama was a Muslim or not. Clinton responded, "Of course not" rather than countering with, "No he's not a Muslim. He's a Christian. What if he were, so what?" She could have said what Colin Powell only recently said, which was, "If there's a seven-year-old Muslim, a boy or girl out there who wants to be president, why shouldn't they be?" Powell is the first major American figure to really spell this out. It took forever, but it shouldn't have taken this long. Even before Powell spoke up, one had to credit Campbell Brown of CNN. She commented on it and said "So what if Obama were a Muslim or an Arab. It doesn't make a difference." Maureen Dowd wrote also wrote about in the "New York Times" but it was Powell who took it a step further. But by and large, there hasn't been much said.

The other thing that concerns me is most major newspapers did not report about a DVD that was released and distributed (in key battleground states) to sway voters. "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" The DVD is as about as anti-semitic or anti-Arab as it can get. The fact that newspapers throughout the country (with the exception of the "Saint Louis Post-Dispatch" and others) accepted this DVD willingly without commenting on it, without bringing out the fact that it is one of the most racist DVDs ever released, this is something Goebbels would be proud of if he were alive today. There was very little commentary on that. I think it went out to 28 million homes throughout the country.

It's time for more journalists to really address this issue and I'm hopeful that after the election this will come out and much more will be said. I think there's a reluctance now because the McCain people and the conservative base has said, in affect, that he is a Muslim and an Arab. By writing about it and saying he's not and so what if he is, might create more doubt and hurt Obama in the election. As far fetched as that may sound, I think that may be one of the main reasons why there's been silence.

What do you make of Obama's reactions to being called a Muslim?

He's mentioned from time to time that Islam and Muslims are good. He hasn't done it that often but he has done it to some extent, said that we should not target Islam and we shouldn't target Muslims. He has not been as forceful as he could be, primarily because the fear that some people would perceive him as a Muslim and that in itself is a tragedy. If he were white and Muslim, that would be bad enough but because of his color and the fact he's being tagged a Muslim is very difficult. It's like "driving while black," and God help him if he's a black Muslim! So I think it makes it that much more difficult for Obama. I do think once he's elected, this will be one of the items he will address. He is a unifier and he will somehow address this issue.

Is this bigotry a stand-in for anti-black racism? Or is this kind of bias against Obama due to his marginal past associations with Islam?

I think it's both. I think many people don't want to say they're not voting for him because he's black. No one likes to admit they're prejudice. You talk to a bigot and say "You're bigoted," they're going to say, "No I'm not." We don't like to admit that. But it's safe to say "I won't vote for him because he's a Muslim" or "I won't vote for him because he's an Arab." You can get away with that even in liberal circles. So in an a way, Arab and Muslim have replace the N-word. You can get away with it. Just like movies and television shows that target Arab and Muslim-Americans as terrorists. These portrayals have worked their way into the psyche of many Americans.

Has either candidate contributed to the bigotry?

I think McCain contributed to it (when the McCain supporter) asked if Obama was an Arab and he said "no, he's a decent man." What he should have said is "No, he's not an Arab or a Muslim-American. But if he was, so what? He's a decent human being... just like most Arab and Muslim-Americans are."


The Internet in general has helped democratize media coverage. Do you believe that it has made some impact in bringing about appropriate portrayals of Arab and Muslim-Americans?

That's a difficult question. I follow mainstream more than I do the Internet. I still believe that mainstream media rules the day. I certainly think the Internet has helped Obama, but I also think it reinforced the attitudes of those who would swear on the Bible that Obama is a Muslim or an Arab. I think Huffington Post is a great Web site. Many of my friends go to it. I think that's helped a lot. But I think people go to the Web looking for sites that reinforce their beliefs. I really believe change will have to come from the top. The only person to speak out with any eloquence has been Powell. What he said has to be expanded. We can't let these comments filter down into yesterday's news. It just has to stay alive.

I am optimistic. In time, I think Obama will address this. Given his world views and approach to issues, eventually it will be OK for someone to say "Oh, you are a Muslim" or "Oh, you are an Arab." Eventually it will be acceptable and embraced in a small town when someone says "Gee, they're building a mosque" instead of saying "Oh my God, no." They will say "Gee, isn't it wonderful to have a mosque next to a synagogue and next to a church?" This is America, this is what it should be. We need leadership that will take us to that point. We don't need another scapegoat. We have vilified so many people for so long with blacks, Asians, Jews, and others. It's time we stop vilifying all things Arab and all things Muslims. I'm confident that Obama will do his best to change this.

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